Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nosy Hara, Madagascar

Our alarm went off at 5:30am, and after checking out of our hotel we walked the few blocks to the New Sea Roc headquarters where our trip to Nosy Hara would start. There were four other people who were going on the same trip: an Italian couple (Constantino and Sylvia), and a French couple (Julien and Vanessa). After introducing ourselves we all sat down for a quick breakfast before loading up into the truck. Everyone spoke either English or French to varying degrees, so conversations were in one of those two languages usually depending on who was initiating it. The owner of New Sea Roc, Mathieu (who was French) was also accompanying us, as were several Malagasy staff.

The journey to reach Nosy Hara involved a 2 hour trip in a 4WD (qat-qat) over some really rough roads to reach the west coast of Madagascar, followed by a 1.5 hour boat ride to reach the archipelago of islands known as Nosy Hara. The islands are in a national marine park, and it took a lot of effort for Mathieu to procure commission to run his climbing camps there. He is the only one who is able to do this, and the number of visitors he can bring are limited to 1000 person-days per year. This means that if on average, people say for 3 days as we were, only about 300 people visit the island per year. Mathieu and his associate have bolted all of the routes, and the limited number of visitors to the island is evident in their pristine condition and the insane friction on all of the limestone routes.

The qat-qat looked a bit like a huge dump truck, and after climbing into the open back and taking our seats we found out that it rode about like a dump truck also, with lots of bouncing around from the slightest hint of a bump in the road. We rolled out of Diego Suarez around 7:00am and started heading west, taking in the local scenery as we went, such as this zebu crossing:

Zebu are a type of cattle that are ubiquitous throughout Madgascar, they have sizable horns and a large characteristic hump on their back that stores fat to see them through lean times (and from the looks of the country side where they graze there are probably plenty of those). They are used for transportation, plowing fields, and for eating, as zebu steak was on the menu at every single restaurant that we ate at during our time in Madagascar. Here is a shot of the back of the truck as we bounced along towards the coast:

We crossed a number of bridges that were a little spooky as they were built from boards that were not secured in place and rattled around as our big truck rolled over them. Eventually the coast came into sight, and we rolled up to the New Sea Roc staging area for the next leg of the trip. Here is a shot of our qat-qat:

At the staging area we met Laurent, a 7th client who would be joining us on our 3 day foray to Nosy Hara. Laurent was also French, but was unique in that he was not coming for the climbing but instead for the snorkeling, fishing, and relaxing. We transferred our packs and supplies to our next mode of transport, a wooden boat with some sort of crude mast and a 40 horsepower outboard motor. Here we are loading up the boat, with Julien and Vanessa on the right and Roanne speaking with Constantino and Sylvia.

Soon after the boat was loaded we pushed off and started motoring through the calm seas towards Nosy Hara. Mathieu immediately deployed two fishing lines to troll for fish along the way, as the speed that the motor was capable of propelling us at didn't rule this out. About half way there he met with success, and reeling in a slim, meter-long fish that looked like a swordfish to me (though I lay no claims to being a marine biologist). With the night's dinner in hand we continued along our way, and soon the group of islands came into sight.

Soon after we pulled up onto a sandy beach, and after anchoring the boat we began unloading. The island looked totally untouched, with the only structures having been constructed entirely form natural materials available on the island (aside from a solar panel or two). Here is a shot of two of the communal areas, with the eating area on the left and the lounging hut on the right:

For the accommodations, we had been given the choice of either a tent, a hut, or a room. I had assumed that the latter two options would be in actual buildings, but it turned out that the hut was a low ceiling structure with a straw roof, not much bigger than a tent, and the room was actually a cave with some extra walls divisions having been constructed. We had one group in each structure, with Roanne and I having chosen the middle option of the hut, so after everything was unloaded we deployed ourselves in our home for the next three days. After a few deep breaths, the realization hit me: we need to start climbing!!! The island we were staying on probably had about 20-30 routes, and there was another island nearby with about the same number, ranging in difficulty from 3c to 8b in french grades (5.easy to 5.13+ in YDS grades). I couldn't remember the conversion between grading systems, so we just started on something that looked easy and calibrated ourselves from there.

We started climbing in an area adjacent to the kitchen which was shaded and had a bunch of really nice looking routes. Constantino and Sylvia had opted for a short nap (they were actually staying for 6 days so had less urgency to get climbing) but Julien and Vanessa were of the same mind as us so we convened at the kitchen and started climbing. We started on a 5c (5.9) which was super fun, then progressed to a 6b (5.10), and then on to a 7a+ (5.12a). I was surprised to come reasonably close to onsighting it, and after Julien then flashed it I was able to send on my next try. It was a really nice climb, with a steep section and short crux giving way to easier climbing on the headwall. Here is a shot of Julien making it look easy:

At this point we decided to head out for some snorkeling, as we had been warned not to swim at dusk since that was when the sharks came in to feed so we wanted to swim before it was too late in the afternoon to avoid being eaten by a requin (french for shark). We gathered some fins and masks from the bag of snorkeling gear that Mathieu had on hand, and headed in for a dip. Here is Roanne getting ready to wade out and put her fins on:

The snorkeling was amazing, with huge quantities of coral, countless different types of brightly coloured fish, and excellent visibility. After snorkeling for an hour or two we toweled off and decided to get back after it and fit in a few more climbs before dinner was served. Julien had hung the draws on a 7b (5.12b) which he had also onsighted, after doing an easier climb to warm up I had a crack at that, and while I didn't send it I did work out a sequence to bypass the crux holds with a giant reach (why use small holds if you can reach past them to bigger ones?) so I made a mental note to come back for the send on a subsequent day. After I finished Constantino had a run on it, and since it was dark by this point he climbed it by headlamp which looked pretty challenging. After this it was time for dinner, and we all sat down for an evening of mixed french/english conversation over delicious Malagasy food (including the fish and some octupus that had been caught that afternoon) cooked over a fire.

In case you haven't realized it by now, gentle reader, this island is about the closest thing to paradise you will find. Here is the drill: wake up, eat nutella and baguettes for breakfast, walk a few steps down the beach to climb awesome routes on incredible limestone, eat a delicious hot lunch, go snorkeling, climb awesome routes on incredible limestone, watch a jaw-dropping sunset, eat a delicious dinner of freshly caught sea food and have great conversation with people from other countries, cultures, and languages, go to bed, and repeat the next day.

So, after finishing off the rum-based "Welcome Punch" that Mathieu had furnished for us, we all headed to bed. One hiccup to our dreamland was that it rained overnight, and in the early morning we realized that our straw-hut roof was not waterproof beyond its ability to act like a giant sponge and soak up the falling rain. After the sponge roof saturated we were plagued by a steady drip which made it hard to sleep so we ended up getting up on the early side. We were thinking enviously of Constantino and Sylvia in their cave, but it turned out that they had suffered the same fate as the water had run down the roof of the cave and dripped on to them. It turned out that only Julien and Vanessa had escaped our fate, having wisely chosen a waterproof tent. Apparently it doesn't rain much on Nosy Hara, but I still think that some waterproofing upgrades might be in order for the upscale accommodation options.

Any chagrin over a less-than-optimal night sleep quickly dissipated as we drank some coffee and realized that we had an awesome day of climbing ahead of us, and after filling up on baguettes with nutella we all climbed in the boat and headed over to a neighbouring island that also had a large number of routes on it. The climbing was really fun, with a super fun 7a (5.11d) onsight being the highlight for me and Roanne stepping up to lead a 5c (5.9) with some great views. The only blemish on an otherwise great morning was that by this point Roanne and I (as well as Sylvia and Constantino) both had a pretty severe case of the runs which required periodic sprints down to the beach to wade out and take relieve ourselves in the ocean (with an "aqua dump", if you will). We had some immodium with us, so we each took one of those and that seemed to provide some temporary relief.

We saw some interesting looking plants and animals on the island, with some of the more notable being the hermit crabs (which take up residence in discarded shells from other sea creatures) and these interesting looking flowers that were growing on the side of the cliff:

While we were climbing for the morning the support staff took the boat out fishing, and on the ride back to our base camp for lunch we saw the fruits of their labours in the bottom of the boat with a host of brightly coloured fish in one box and a few octupus in the box behind:

After another delicious lunch, I went out for some more snorkeling with a circumnavigation of the island while Roanne decided to take advantage of the excellent lounging facilities:

Upon returning from my snorkeling I managed to rouse Roanne from her slumbers and draft her into belay duty, and after warming up I managed to send the 7b that I had tried the day before. After one more climb we headed around to the other side of the island to catch the last remnants of the sunset before sitting down for another delicious dinner with stimulating conversation and special punch. After dinner we were treated to a nice sight as the almost-full moon rose up over the horizon:

That night be enjoyed an excellent sleep free of any precipitation, but upon rousing ourselves from our slumbers I realized that the runs were back with a vengeance as I took what would be the first of 8 watery number twos that day (a new record for me!). Suitably lightened up, we headed over to the other side of the island to sample some routes in an area that we had not climbed yet. The main attraction over there seemed to be a nice looking 7c (5.12c/d) that traversed out a roof before finishing up a headwall. Julien had given the route a summary visual inspection from the ground and assured me that it would be "facile", so after a few warm-ups we decided to give it a go. Julien went first, and with a bit of hanging managed to work his way up it even though he was feeling pretty spent from some efforts on another climb earlier that morning and this would be the last difficult climbing of the day for him (on the subject of his arms: "when they are gone, they are gone"). Here is a shot of Julien leading out the roof to start the climb, with Sylvia and Constantino looking on:

I tried next, and managed to one-hang the climb after finding some good beta including a nice knee bar that allowed a full recovery before finishing up the headwall (which was easy but run out enough to be a no-fall zone). My efforts left me confident that I could send with some rest and knowing the moves, so after Constantino had a burn up it and refined the beta further with some elegant cross through moves I had one more go before lunch and came pretty close, falling on the last hard moves before the knee bar rest. Here is a shot of Constantino on the route:

After some lunch and a short snorkel, I spent the rest of the afternoon until about 4:00pm lying in a hammock and wishing my stomach didn't feel so sick (with the relaxation broken up by periodic sprints to the bathroom). By this point I was feeling bad enough that had Julien's draws not still been on the route, I probably would have called it good and aborted any further attempts at sending. However, with the need to retrieve "les degans", I decided to rally for one more attempt and Roanne and I headed back to the other side of the island. The tide was coming up so the bottom of the route was almost underwater, but there was just enough room to belay so after the necessary checks I headed up with Julien and Mathieu having come along to watch and offer their encouragement.

A few moves in to the harder climbing I was feeling surprisingly good, as some endorphins must have kicked in and I was really light if nothing else, having voided my bowels on a regular 1 hour cycle throughout the entire day. The crux moves flowed as smooth as beaujolaise sauce, and with a short recovery at each rest I managed to float through the climb and clip the anchors to the congratulatory shouts of my supporters below. Bon courage! After a somewhat involved cleaning process due to the severely overhung and traversing nature of the climb I was back on the ground feeling really happy. Here is a shot of me on the beach pointing up to the scene of my conquest (though the climb itself is not visible):

We then waded back around through the waters of the high tide in the golden light of the setting sun, and made a beeline for the highpoint of the island to watch the last amazing sunset of our trip:

We all met on the summit for the sunset, here is a shot of Roanne and myself waiting for the sun to drop:

And here is a shot of the setting sun in all it's African glory:

By this point the endorphins I had worked up during my climbing exploits had begun to dissipate, and I began to feel considerably worse than I had in the afternoon before starting the climb. It was almost as if my body had taken the energy it would have needed for maintaining a baseline of feeling reasonable in the presence of whatever stomach affliction I had and used it for the climb, and now I was in some sort of energy debt and feeling really crappy. In any case, I decided to head back to our hut for a short nap before dinner in hopes that I would perk up, but I ended up skipping dinner and staying there all night with my reverie only broken by the occasional sprint to the toilet. I did have the presence of mind to deploy the higher strength remedy for traveller's diarrhea that we had brought along, some Ciprofloxin which seemed to work wonders as I felt pretty normal the next morning (the 12 hour sleep probably helped also).

The next morning brought another early start to the day, but unfortunately this time it was not for another fairy-tale day of climbing and snorkeling in our beachside paradise, but instead to make the journey back to Diego Suarez as our time in Nosy Hara had come to an end. I wished desperately that we could stay longer, but consoled myself with thoughts of other Madagascan adventures still to come as we boarded the boat. The boat ride back to the main island was pretty interesting as the seas were rough with pretty sizeable waves, with the result that we were all thoroughly soaked by the time we pulled up on the beach at the New Sea Roc staging area.

Soon after our arrival our land transport pulled up, a much smaller qat-qat that looked like it would be much faster and more comfortable (especially for me since I snagged shotgun). The only hiccup was that there was some sort of mechanical problem with the jeep, and a few of the staff spent about an hour removing one of the rear wheels and replacing it without any real indication of what the problem was and whether or not it had been resolved. Here is a shot of the mechanics at work with Roanne in the background thoroughly engrossed by "Gone with the Wind":

Eventually we were underway, bouncing back through the dry country side headed for Diego Suarez:

We again passed numerous huts in varying state of repair and structural integrity, with many of them constructed from sheets of corrugated metal such as the one below:

Another sight that we witnessed near the outskirts of town really drove home the point about how different the Madagascar economy and way of life is to ours in North America: there were a number of shelters set up constructed out of scraps of material salvaged from a nearby dump, and under these shelters people were engaged in breaking up rocks into smaller, gravel-sized pieces of rock. Outside each shelter was a pile of gravel which appeared to have been created bit by bit as the larger rocks were painstakingly broken up. This was just my interpretation of the scene so maybe I am missing something, but it put the Madagascan economy in context, with the most gainful employment that these people could find being to manually create gravel. Here is a photo of one of these rock-breaking stations:

Eventually we passed into the Diego Suarez city center which was as bustling as ever, and parked outside the New Sea Roc headquarters. After bidding fond farewells to the friends that we had made over the last few days we loaded up our bags and set out to find a hotel from which we could base our remaining activities in Diego Suarez before moving on to Antananarivo.


  1. Hey Cam!! Beautiful trip, wasn't it?
    Hope to see you guys soon!


  2. It was awesome! Yeah, it would be great to get together sometime soon, were you guys going to be in the US for a wedding at some point? I can't seem to find your e-mail address, if you have mine can you send it to me?